What to watch for: Oklahoma State

Missouri welcomes Oklahoma State, which was beaten up and embarrassed against Texas A&M last week, for Homecoming on Saturday afternoon. Both teams rely heavily on the running game, so the team that strikes early stands a good chance to win. Check inside for a breakdown of the matchups that will decide the outcome.

Oklahoma State is not a carbon copy of Texas, Missouri's opponent last week, but there are a handful of similarities that should benefit the Tigers.

Like the Longhorns, Oklahoma State builds its offense around the run and struggles to do much of anything in the air. Both teams boast game-breaking, conference-leading tailbacks but a question mark at quarterback. And, like Texas, the Cowboys are fighting to keep pace with Oklahoma, the class of the Big 12, and to many, the country.

While Missouri should not be surprised by much Oklahoma State does, the Tigers will need a similarly strong defensive performance to run their home winning streak to double digits. The first quarter will be huge, as both teams would benefit greatly from taking an early lead. While this game has the makings of another multiple-overtime affair, Missouri should be able to improve to 3-1 in the conference and, with some help from Kansas State, move into sole possession of the top spot in the North.

Tiger offense vs. Cowboy defense

Advantage: Missouri

Despite allowing 17.5 points per game (good for 25th in the nation), the Cowboys rank near the bottom of the Big 12 in total defense, allowing 360.7 yards per game. They are not overwhelming against the run or the pass, giving the Tigers an ability to establish the run early and then beat the Cowboys' smaller defensive backs downfield later.

The Cowboys will be without their top defensive line threat, as freshman end Nathan Peterson, whose four sacks lead the team, is likely out for the season (and certainly the Missouri game) with a knee injury. There is talent behind Peterson -- junior Jerry Don Bray is the likely starter -- but losing their top pass rusher will certainly hurt the Cowboys.

Nose tackle Clay Coe is the leader on the line. A senior, Coe started all 13 games last season and remains the line's lynchpin. He has recorded eight tackles and recovered a fumble. Darnell Smith and Efe Mowarin are the other two starters, although neither has contributed much statistically. Xavier Lawson-Kennedy is a talented sophomore tackle that should see plenty of time, but the limited contributions from this unit could expose why Oklahoma State is in the middle of the Big 12 pack against the run.

The Cowboys' starting linebackers are likely the most athletic players on the defense. Junior Paul Duren is third on the team with 32 tackles, including two for loss. He also is tied for the team lead with two interceptions. Junior Lawrence Pinson starts at middle linebacker. He is fifth on the team with 24 tackles and has contributed an interception. Backups Pagitte McGee and Victor DeGrate also see plenty of playing time. The lack of major contributors on the defensive line is overshadowed by the strength of this unit.

Missouri has an opportunity to take advantage of an experienced, but struggling secondary. Oklahoma State ranks eighth in the conference (and 74th nationally) against the pass, allowing 222.2 yards per game. Although the Tigers do not have the most efficient passing game, they should be able to move the ball against this unit.

Junior WS Jamie Thompson leads the team with 40 tackles. He has shown an ability to make an impact all over the field, as he has recorded two sacks to go with an interception. He also leads the Cowboys with three forced fumbles. Junior Jon Holland, the cousin of Missouri senior safety Nino Williams, has recorded 34 tackles. Junior Vernon Grant has made two interceptions.

Senior CB Darrent Williams is Oklahoma State's best defender and a contender for All-American status. Fortunately for Missouri, Williams will miss the game with a broken forearm. In his place, a bevy of smallish corners will attempt to slow down the Tigers' tall receivers. With 21 tackles, senior Robert Jones has contributed the most. Junior Daniel McLemore should get the start at the other corner; Missouri should be able to exploit his size (5-foot-7, 160 pounds) with its larger receivers. Missouri will likely attempt to establish its running game first, but the Tigers are much more capable of using their passing game to make up an early deficit than the Cowboys are.

Oklahoma State uses a 4-2-5 defense, employing two linebackers and three safeties in its base look.

Cowboy offense vs. Tiger defense

Advantage: Push

The Oklahoma State offense is in the unique position of losing two of its top performers of last season to the NFL and another to a budding baseball career. Rashaun Woods and Tatum Bell are now drawing professional football paychecks, while Josh Fields was a top draft pick in baseball's June draft and chose to leave Stillwater.

That left an inexperienced group to take the reins, but it has produced results so far. Oklahoma State is ranked high in most statistical categories, including fourth in the country in rushing (268 yards per game) and ninth in scoring (37.7 points per game). The passing game is a different matter, but the Cowboys should be able to move the ball.

The offense begins -- and often ends -- with TB Vernand Morency. The junior has picked up where Bell left off, racking up 980 yards in his first six contests. He has gained at least 100 rushing yards in each of his past eight starts and has nine touchdowns. (Some perspective: Morency's lowest single-game rushing total this season is 111 yards, against Texas A&M last week; a Missouri rusher has only managed 111 yards once this season, when Damien Nash rumbled for 126 yards against Arkansas State.) Morency is not much of a threat as a receiver out of the backfield, having caught just one ball on the season.

Wide receiver D'Juan Woods replaces older brother Rashaun as the Cowboys' top receiving threat. The sophomore has tallied 15 receptions, 272 yards and four touchdowns, all team highs. TE Billy Bajema, who has caught 11 balls for 193 yards and a touchdown, is the only other notable receiving threat.

Now distributing the ball is Donovan Woods, the younger brother of D'Juan and Rashaun. A redshirt freshman, Woods has not managed gaudy numbers but is winning, the most relevant stat for quarterbacks. He has attempted just 78 passes through six games. He completed 41 of them, for 726 yards, eight touchdowns and two interceptions. Many believe Donovan is the most athletic of the Woods clan and that is exhibited in his mobility in the pocket, but he has just 142 yards on 48 carries. His large frame (6-foot-2, 215 pounds) makes him a force near the goal line, accounting for his six rushing touchdowns. If Woods is knocked out of the game, fellow redshirt freshman Al Pena would replace him.

This season's transition has been made easier by an experienced and talented offensive line. Two seniors, Chris Akin and Sam Mayes, anchor the center of the line. Redshirt freshman David Koenig is the other starting guard, but back pain makes him questionable to start. (Junior Corey Curtis would replace him.) The tackles are both 6-foot-5 and should be quite a test for Missouri's smaller ends. The line has allowed just four sacks, tied for second least in the conference. Coach Gary Pinkel called them "physical, physical people;" the Tigers will need to find a way to get through, over or around the line to be successful.

Oklahoma State runs a pro-style offense, employing two receivers, a tight end and a fullback in its base set.

Special teams

Advantage: Oklahoma State

True freshman Jason Ricks grabbed the starting kicking job in training camp and has held onto it. He has made six of seven field goal attempts and 27 of 29 extra points. Saturday's game will be his first in a raucous and unfriendly atmosphere, so nerves could be an issue for Ricks.

Cole Farden is one of the top punters in the country, ranking third in the Big 12 and 17th nationally, averaging 43.2 yards per attempt.

The loss of Darrent Williams is doubly painful for the Cowboys because he is the team's top punt returner. Prentiss Elliott, a true freshman receiver, has been serviceable in Williams' place, averaging 6.8 yards per return. Jones is the primary kick returner, averaging 18.6 yards per return.

Intangibles

Advantage: Missouri

The Tigers get the nod here because they are playing at home. The Cowboys are not the standard Homecoming fare, though, and will present quite a challenge.

It is always beneficial to score first, but that will be more important than usual Saturday. The Missouri defense will be tested again by the one-dimensional Cowboy offense. The Tiger defensive line will get a chance to prove how good it actually is; if it can knock Woods around a bit and wrap up and drag down Morency as quickly as possible, the Tigers should be in good shape. The Missouri offense should move the ball well, but a slowed Damien Nash could be a big loss.

Missouri should win this game, but it would not be surprising if they fall. A win would launch the Tigers' momentum sky high with a huge game looming at Nebraska next week; a loss to the Cowboys could be catastrophic.

Final Prediction: Missouri 27, Oklahoma State 23


Black & Gold Illustrated Top Stories